Why the Sunshine Policy Made Sense

6 04 2010

By James E. Hoare (www.38North.org)

At a recent private meeting in London, a former senior United Nations’ official, drawing on experience relating to a wide range of countries, said that transforming a “failing” or “fragile” state was not something that could be done overnight. Those involved needed to think in terms of ten to twenty years rather than weeks or months. Regardless of whether or not one accepts the idea of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) as a failed or even fragile state—and the term is often used in some quarters—the idea that one is in for the long haul in bringing about major modifications in behavior and attitude is certainly a good one to have in mind when dealing with the DRPK. It was such an approach that marked the Republic of Korea’s policy towards the North under former Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun.

Since the Lee Myung-bak government took office in the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) in 2008, it is fashionable to dismiss the policies followed by his predecessors as an expensive failure. Sneers about “ATM diplomacy,” innuendo about Kim Dae-jung’s motives, and references to his successor Roh Moo-hyun’s naivety, are the commonplace of South Korean academic and press comment, and are heard much further afield. “Sunshine” or engagement have become terms of mockery. The Lee government has adopted a more aggressive policy towards North Korea. It has not refused assistance outright, but has couched its offers in such a way that rejection is inevitable—the most recent example is the “grand bargain” proposed in 2009 in which the DPRK must first give up its nuclear program to receive security guarantees and aid. This is then played back as evidence that the North is incorrigible and not deserving of assistance.

The Lee government’s approach is based on an incorrect assessment both of the Sunshine Policy and what went before it. “Sunshine” or “engagement” was not something that sprang from Kim Dae-jung’s fertile brain, though he certainly can be credited with refining and developing the idea. The policies pursued by Kim and Roh lay firmly within a tradition that goes back to President Park Chung Hee in the early 1970s and that was followed by all his successors to a greater or lesser degree. However, it was never easy to engage the North and it did not take much to divert earlier presidents from such a policy. Frustrated or annoyed, they eventually gave up the effort…

[…] No doubt engagement was expensive and sometimes the means used to bring it about were shady, but it was producing benefits. The South, and to some extent the rest of the world, now has a far better understanding of how North Korea works then it did before engagement began. Within the North, a large number of people have come to see their southern compatriots in a less hostile light and have some, even if limited, understanding of the economic and social structures of South Korea. Perhaps some of the assistance provided was diverted away from its original purpose, but enough rice and fertilizer bags reached areas far away from Pyongyang and enough people were willing to ask questions about the South to show that the impact of engagement extended beyond a small circle of ruling elite. Slowly, the policy was creating a group of people who could see benefits in remaining on good terms with South Korea and who had wider links with the outside world. Engagement has worked in other countries, most noticeably China, and I believe that it was beginning to work in North Korea. There was never going to be a speedy change in attitudes built up over sixty years, but stopping the process after ten was not a wise decision.

Read the article online at: http://www.nautilus.org/fora/security/10020Hoare.html

*James E. Hoare was Britain’s Chargé d’Affaires to the DPRK from 2001-2002 and opened the British Embassy in Pyongyang.

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